Incompetent Texts in Camus, Sartre, and Celine

The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Death on the Installment Plan, by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, all contrast themselves with internal texts that fail to represent the world competently. The Stranger includes the prosecutor's narrative of the murders as an incompetent text by refusing to support the motives he assigns. It contrasts itself with the prosecutor's narrative in view of the excessive language of the prosecutor versus the simple reporting of Meursault. The Stranger similarly positions comments by Marie and Raymond as incompetent by contrasting their pity with the text's own view that no event is truly pitiable. Nausea positions a text by Balzac as incompetent because it assigns cause to events by using psychology and past time. The novel includes paintings of a wayward bachelor and bourgeois grandfather as incompetent texts. Nausea also positions the Self-Taught Man's description of adventure as incompetent by arguing that adventure is a social construct. Death on the Installment Plan marks an effusive letter to Courtial as incompetent, in contrast with Ferdinand's stance of reporting. It also positions Courtial's pamphlets promoting an outdoor education as incompetent by showing that they misrepresent Courtial's intentions and ability. Death also uses Auguste's letter to Ferdinand as an attempt to bend Ferdinand to the values of the bourgeoisie, which he questions. Each of the three texts increase its own verisimilitude through its implicit comparison with inadequate internal texts.

The Stranger contrasts its narrative of the murder of the Arab with the prosecutor's narrative, in terms of the faulty motives that the prosecutor ascribes to Meursault. The prosecutor provides a cause for each of Meursault's actions. Meursault summarizes the prosecutor's case: "I had asked [Raymond] to give me his gun. I had gone back alone intending to use it. I had shot the Arab as I planned . . . And to make sure I had done the job right, I fired four more shots" (99). However, the text does not assign these causes to the murder. As Meursault approaches the Arab, he realizes that "[as] far as I was concerned, the whole thing was over, and I'd gone there without even thinking about it" (58). The text's narration contradicts the narrative that the prosecutor provides by denying that there is any "affair of unspeakable vice" that makes Meursault approach the Arab (96). The narration of the second series of shots also refuses to support the prosecutor's narrative. Meursault simply reports that "I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace" (59). Meursault's account does not concern itself with a cause for the shots, which "really didn't matter" (69). The Stranger positions the prosecutor's narrative as a flawed text by providing no support in Meursault's narrative for the motives the prosecutor attributes to him.

The Stranger also uses contrast between the simple reporting of Meursault and the excessive language of the prosecutor to position the prosecutor's text as incompetent. Meursault simply describes objects, events, and thoughts as they come to him: "I washed my hands. I really like doing this at lunchtime. I don't enjoy it so much in the evening, because the roller towel you use is soaked through . . . I mentioned it once to my boss" (25). Meursault takes the stance of simply reporting these impressions, without attempting to create a coherent story from them. He remains unconcerned with the effects of his reporting. At the trial, he says that he killed the Arab "because of the sun," even though he realizes "how ridiculous [he] sounded" (103). In contrast, the prosecutor uses language with the agenda of making Meursault seem to be a "criminal soul" (99). He calls Meursault's relationship with Marie "the most shameful debauchery" (96), and refers to her only as his "mistress" (99). The prosecutor uses these terms to distort Meursault's relationship with Marie. This contrasts with Meursault's simple stance that "to me, she was Marie" (99). The prosecutor also uses hyperbole in his claim that Meursault is "an abyss threatening to swallow up society" (101). The Stranger uses the distortion of the prosecutor's language to position it as an incompetent text, in contrast with Meursault's stance of competent reporting.

The Stranger positions his society's belief in pity as an incompetent text by arguing that pity unjustly divides people who are all bound to the same fate. Pity is a social construction which violates the text's notion that "one life [is] as good as another" (41). It divides the individual who pities from the one who is pitied by creating the illusion that either's fate is any different. Meursault argues that "we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people . . . [who will] all be condemned one day" (121). Meursault chooses not to share the pity that Celeste and Raymond feel because of Salamano's treatment of the dog. He notes that "Celeste is always saying, 'It's pitiful,'" but questions the illusion of pity by asking "really, who's to say?" (27). His question positions Celeste's statement as an incompetent text, because it points out that no one exists who is not equally "condemned." Similarly, when Raymond beats the Arab woman, "Marie said it was terrible and I didn't say anything" (36). Meursault does not intervene, and Marie's suggestion that he should becomes incompetent because of its implied pity. Meursault also denies his society's belief that he must feel grief for Maman, because "nobody had the right to cry over her" (122). The Stranger positions the "right to cry" over others as an incompetent view of the world, in contrast to its own assertion that pity is not necessary because all people share the same fate.

Nausea positions a section in Balzac's Eugenie Grandet as a traditional and incompetent narrative, in contrast with the novel's refusal to incorporate psychology or the past. Nausea differentiates itself from traditional novels by not providing a psychology to explain Roquentin's actions. When he finds himself unable to pick up a piece of paper, he does not look for any "inner life" to explain his actions: "I want no secrets or soul-states" (9). Nausea also differentiates itself from traditional narratives by not describing Roquentin's past experiences. The text does not include Roquentin's adventures, and it also does not provide details of why Anny left Roquentin. The novel's decision not to use psychology to explain Roquentin's actions, or the past to predict his future actions, separates it from the bourgeois tradition of explaining life through cause and effect. The section of Eugenie Grandet, in contrast, follows the bourgeois tradition by assigning a past and a psychology to Eugenie's mother. The mother's "maternal old face" is "worn with long suffering" (47). The narrator assigns the past experiences of "long suffering" to the mother, and predicts her actions by assigning her to the category of "maternal." The mother wants "to justify her daughter's madness by sharing it" (47). This assigns psychological motivation to the mother to explain her subsequent actions. Nausea positions Eugenie Grandet as an incompetent text because its strategies apply cause and effect to the events of life, while Nausea refuses to use those strategies.

Nausea includes bourgeois paintings of a bachelor and a grandfather as incompetent texts. Roquentin sees a picture entitled "'The Bachelor's Death,'" which portrays the bachelor "Naked to the waist, his body a little green . . . lying on an unmade bed" (82). The "unmade bed," as well as the "maid, his mistress, her features marked by vice" (82), show the picture's attempt to represent disorder and disloyalty as part of the bachelor's lifestyle. Roquentin recognizes the picture's attempt to bend young men away from bachelorhood into the more acceptable lifestyle of marriage: "This painting gave me a last warning" (82). "The Bachelor's Death" is a faulty text because of its moralization of the alternative to a traditional bourgeois marriage. Nausea also positions a picture of a grandfather as incompetent by supplying his sentiments in his patriarchal role. The grandfather wants "people to lower their voices slightly when he entered, . . . smiling respect when he passed, . . . . [and] the last word on everything" (86). The text paints him as a patriarch, sitting at the top of the bourgeois order. Roquentin, in contrast, realizes that "I was neither father nor grandfather, not even a husband . . . My existence began to worry me seriously" (86). Roquentin uses satire to argue that the bourgeoisie refuses to grant the validity of any existence except a traditional bourgeois existence. The paintings of the bachelor and the grandfather are incompetent texts because they promote this agenda.

Nausea also positions the Self-Taught Man's use of adventure as an incompetent text, by contrast with the novel's view that adventure is a social construct. The Self-Taught Man describes adventure in terms of cliches from bourgeois novels: "Losing your briefcase, being arrested by mistake, spending the night in prison" (35). His description reflects the bourgeois category of adventure, which he finds in books in the bourgeois institution of the library. The Self-Taught Man uses categories to classify all the "strange" scenes that he has read about: "Have you seen the Christ made of animal skins at Burgos? . . . And the Black Virgin? . . . The Pilgrims kiss her, don't they?" (34). Nausea positions the Self-Taught Man's use of adventure as incompetent by denying the validity of adventure as a category. Roquentin argues that time is a sequence of "[days] tacked on to days without rhyme or reason," and that "[there] are no beginnings" which would organize the sequence of instants into an "adventure" (39). An "adventure" violates the succession of instants by implying that they are joined with a coherent beginning and ending. The Self-Taught Man's idea of adventure is incompetent because it distorts life by constructing beginnings and endings, and by molding life to fit into the bourgeois category of adventure.

Death on the Installment Plan positions Courtial's letter from an admirer as an incompetent text through its flattery of Courtial and its exaggerated claims about the telescope, in contrast to Ferdinand's stance of restraint. Ferdinand suspects that "[Courtial] wrote the favorable [letter] himself" (355). The possibility that Courtial wrote the letter questions its legitimacy as a text that reliably represents the world. The letter flatters Courtial in the conclusion: "Yours, dear, gracious, and benevolent master, yours in heart, body, and spirit" (355). This praise contrasts with Ferdinand's "certain restraint in [his] approval" of Courtial (356). The bias of the letter makes Ferdinand's "restraint" appear more objective. The letter also marks itself as faulty when its author claims to have seen the "moon, in its complete totality, with . . . rivers, . . . a forest, [and] even a lake!" (355; emphasis original). The novel uses the idea of a "forest" or "lake" on the moon as an outdated notion from the time of Ferdinand's youth, bringing the accuracy of the letter into question. The exaggerated claim about the power of Courtial's homemade telescope also makes Ferdinand's reporting of "the rage of all those insatiable, vicious peeping toms, disappointed by telescopy" appear more realistic (354). Death on the Installment Plan positions the letter as incompetent by contrasting its bias in favor of Courtial and the telescope design with Ferdinand's more cautious reporting.

Death creates another incompetent text in Courtial's pamphlet promising an outdoor education on Courtial's farm, which misrepresents Courtial's ability or intention to provide education. Courtial's "grand appeal" promises to provide children with "primary education, . . . secondary 'rationalistic' education too . . . [and] higher learning" (496). However, the text undermines the pamphlet by following the promises with legal doubts about Courtial's ability to open a school. The school is not supported by the "Ministry of Education," and the "Inspector of Schools" warns Courtial not to "[carry] the educational aspect too far" (499). The incompetence of the pamphlet is also hinted by its promise of a "'positivistic, zootechnic, and horticultural'" education (496). The words misrepresent Courtial's actual intention that the children "pull out weeds" (497). When the children turn to stealing food, Courtial tries to convince one father "[to] leave the kid with us until he'd learn all there was to know about agriculture . . . [because] That kid was worth his weight in gold" (507). The text juxtaposes Courtial's insincere arguments for education with his projects of getting money from the parents and of letting the children steal food. Death on the Installment Plan positions Courtial's pamphlet and speeches about education as an incompetent text that misrepresents the farm's "education" of letting the children run free.

Death on the Installment Plan also positions Auguste's letter to Ferdinand as an incompetent text because it uses bourgeois institutions to mould Ferdinand into being a better son. The letter begins by decrying Ferdinand's "well-nigh monstrous appetite for luxury and pleasure," and it attempts to exonerate his parents who "have done our utmost, tried everything" (258). The letter uses the value of work to moralize against Ferdinand's taste for "luxury and pleasure," and to suggest that he is "wicked" because he does not want to work (257). The bourgeois image of parents who "have done [their] utmost" bends Ferdinand to have more respect for his parents' wishes. Auguste writes that "[we] can spend no more of our slender resources trying to save you from your fate . . . " (258). The letter invokes the bourgeois value of economy to prick Ferdinand's conscience about the "fate" which he has chosen to pursue. The letter is incompetent because it attempts to bend Ferdinand toward submission to the bourgeois life. Ferdinand resists the bourgeois life because the Passage "haunts" him through "[the] misery of working for people" and the requirement for workers to "show enthusiasm" (261). Ferdinand questions the value of "enthusiasm" and the search for a job, the bourgeois values that his father tries to impress on him. Death positions Auguste's letter as an incompetent text because it attempts to mould Ferdinand using values he questions.

Each of the three texts increase their own verisimilitude through their implicit comparison with flawed internal texts. Death on the Installment Plan uses the incompetent texts of Courtial's pamphlet, his letter from an admirer, and Auguste's letter to make Ferdinand's narrative look more objective and realistic as he narrates Courtial's schemes and his father's exhortation. Nausea uses the bourgeois novel by Balzac, the paintings in the museum, and the category of adventure as incompetent texts that make Roquentin's existentialism seem to portray the world more accurately in contrast. The Stranger uses the prosecutor's narrative, its excessive language, and the statements of pity as faulty texts which distort the gratuitous events of the world by interpreting them, in contrast to Meursault's project of reporting without interpretation. The device of the incompetent text helps each of these three texts represent the world with a greater appearance of truth.

Copyright (c) 1995 by David Anderson. This text is not in the public domain.

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